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Photo: Siri Stafford/Getty
Photo: Siri Stafford/Getty

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Shopgirls Aren't Here for Your Objectifying Fantasies

We need more stories that make female retail workers the subjects of their own lives

For roughly a year when I was freshly graduated and newly 22, I was a shopgirl. Most of my days and often my nights were spent behind the counter of two different stores, the first a bookstore on Boston's Newbury Street and the second the gift shop of a colonial-themed museum.

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I use the outdated term "shopgirl" somewhat facetiously to refer back to this period of my life both because a museum coworker and I used to jokingly refer to ourselves as such — "Ye olde shopgirl," we'd laugh — and also because one of the first things I learned in retail is that most customers regard female sales associates with the same Victorian attitude we once reserved for children: that they should be seen and not heard.

It's a gendered attitude that persists, in real life and in the popular culture we consume. Perhaps that's why even though I've since forgotten the quickest method of counting a cash drawer or how to gift-wrap any container more complicated in shape than a rectangle, a real feeling of anxiety still sometimes washes over me when I step inside a department store or even my local Rite Aid.

The first thing I learned in retail is that customers tend to regard shopgirls with a Victorian attitude: They should be seen and not heard.

Intentionally or not, people are quite cruel to sales associates, treating them as though they're dispensable or invisible. During the summer rush of tourists, it wasn't uncommon for a fellow gift-shop worker to excuse themselves for a moment and take a quick breath after a customer's sarcasm or eye roll. "No, my head will fall off," I recall a woman snapping to a coworker when asked if she could remove her straw hat before entering the museum. But these moments of direct confrontation were preferable to the men who would trap female sales associates in out-of-the-way store corners, rambling on about nothing to their captive audience while we tried to escape the discomfort of their gaze.

It doesn't help that in an historically female-dominated profession, more women than men still work in non-managerial positions in retail today. That means they not only earn less money, they're also more likely to bear the brunt of cultural mythologizing: of the shopgirl who smiles, says little, and is there to help you with all your needs.

The allure of the shopgirl, with all its problematic gendered undertones, has a long cultural history, dating back to 1830s Paris, when the first department store opened. Harried shopgirls often slept in the attics of the department stores where they worked and were portrayed by Emile Zola in his 1883 novel Au bonheur des dames (The Ladies' Paradise). His characters, based closely on those employed at the Bon Marché, stack and restack fabrics and house goods in a department store that is described by Zola as more like a church than a shopping center. "Of supreme importance," he writes, "was the exploitation of Woman. Everything else led up to it, the ceaseless renewal of capital, the system of piling up goods."

Still, there aren't many novels written from the shopgirl's perspective,€” something I realized as I re-alphabetized books at the bookstore. There are, of course, a slew of movies about underachieving shop employees, from Clerks to High Fidelity,€” but the best-known and most storied of these are from male perspectives, or written by men. Accounts from female viewpoints are still relatively rare. It was thrilling to watch the recent film Carol; department-store employee Therese, played by Rooney Mara, displays the same kind of bemused apathy that I felt when I was behind the counter. But even that film maintains a familiar, lopsided power dynamic, in which a pretty sales girl catches the eye of a glamorous customer with time to kill.

The Price of Salt, the Patricia Highsmith novel on which the movie is based, is more specific about the devalued labor of the retail worker: "It was that the store intensified things," Highsmith writes, "that always bothered her ... It was the waste actions, the meaningless chores that seemed to keep her from what she wanted to do." The shopgirl's inane tasks, from refolding sweaters to restacking books, operate in direct contrast to the customer's "valuable" time.

The shopgirl's inane tasks, from refolding sweaters to restacking books, operate in direct contrast to the customer's 'valuable' time.

During my time as a shopgirl, I witnessed a lot of these sorts of charades. "There's this bargain that both sides understand in retail," the writer Kate Zambreno, whose 2011 novel Green Girl explores the life of a London department store sales associate named Ruth, points out in an interview with the magazine Hazlitt. "[It's] a bit like pop therapy. This sense that you can buy something that will get you closer to this fantasy of happiness, when of course nothing can do that."

The shopgirl is a part of that fantasy, as we can see in fictional depictions such as Shopgirl, Steve Martin's 2000 novella, and its subsequent film adaptation. Mirabelle, the depressed, vaguely artistic shopgirl of the title, sleeps with a wealthy older man who pays off her student loans and buys her expensive clothing.

The book, with its constant descriptions of Mirabelle's good looks and blank inner life, forgets that most women would prefer to be the subject, not the object, of their own lives. When Mirabelle, "standing at the glove counter with her ankles crossed," considers herself in that moment to be "in a way ... perfect," Martin falls into a familiar eroticization of the shopgirl, in which the retail worker is considered by her customers as nothing more than the human equivalent of the gloves she sells: lovely, useless, and consumable.

I'm guilty of the same objectification. At the bookstore where I worked, a fellow shopgirl from a neighboring store would come in every weekend afternoon and order coffee from the attached café. Her name, I think, was Sarah. She worked at one of the small, fashionable clothing boutiques down the street, and she exuded such a cheerfulness and sense of competence that I assumed that there was something more pleasant to working at that store.

Maybe it had slightly less eccentric clientele, for one. At the bookstore, there were customers who made a mess of the bathroom and rearranged every book in the religion section so that those concerning Christianity were most prominently displayed.

In comparison, the clothing boutique reminded me of a line from Joan Didion's essay "On the Mall," in which she writes that any mall of hers would have "monkeys, and Chinese restaurants, and Mylar kites and bands of small girls playing tambourines." Sarah didn't work in a mall, but it seemed to me that if any store were to have bands of small girls playing tambourines, metaphoric or otherwise, it would be her place of employ, which smelled of perfume whenever I walked by on my lunch break.

They are both priestesses of consumer desire and easily objectified figures expected to conform to a customer's demands.

This fantasy was shattered when I stopped in one afternoon to look at sweaters, and realized that any workplace that relies on the notion of constant employee availability in exchange for minimum wage doesn't generally cultivate optimism among its staff. I spotted Sarah standing behind the cash register. She was staring at the wall in boredom, and didn't recognize me. It took me a moment to realize that I was doing the same thing, idealizing her in the context of her job, that I hated when my customers did it to me.

Not too much has changed since my days behind the counter. Sales associates still spend most of their days folding and unfolding, shelving and reshelving; they are priestesses who boost consumer desire and also easily objectified figures expected to conform to a customer's demands. A conduit for other people's desires, a good portion of the day is spent waiting: waiting for a customer to enter, waiting for a transaction to process, waiting for a shift to end. Waiting for life to begin.

And yet, there are some things I miss about it. It was that sense, even with the needy customers, the terrible pay, and the sore feet, of strange possibility. There was a communal feeling among the sales associates that years later we'd come back to the store and act like the occasional nice customers that we adored, the ones who didn't ignore us or act as though we were invisible.

Today, when I am depressed I sometimes go window-shopping. Past 8 p.m., the pastel aisles of my local supermarket or mall fill, for their last open hours, with my fellow malcontents. Listless and alone, we dawdle, wandering every aisle aimlessly and reading and rereading the back of every lotion container before choosing none of them. The Muzak overheard is our version of the band of small girls playing tambourine. We're killing time, engaging in retail therapy, pretending for a moment to be someone else. Will this chocolate bar transform me? Will these bath salts change my life?

It's a silly game, one that is quickly forgotten when it comes time to make my purchase. The shopgirl is neither a glove to be bought nor a lovely fantasy to be batted around; she is human, only human. When it's my turn, I smile, and try not to be irritating. Sometimes, from either side of the counter, it's nice to find camaraderie with a stranger.

Rhian Sasseen's work has been published in Aeon, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and more.


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